Ken Jones: Game may be up for the bloated, plastic heroes

Click to follow

As it used to be told, the story has Brian Clough's wife complaining one night, "God, your feet are cold." Clough replied, "You may call me Brian, dear."

The football manager as deity was a trusted metaphor, mocking in tone, guaranteed to get a cackling response at corporate lunches and testimonial dinners, but it spoke of a hard truth about Clough that his players ignored at their peril. "Play all the angles before they start playing you," I remember him saying.

Better than most, the former Derby County and Nottingham Forest manager understood the words of a baseball coach, Mayo Smith, who once said, "Open up a ball player's head and you know what you'd find? A lot of broads and a jazz band."

As recent events have scandalously shown, salaries upwards of £25,000 a week have not brought with them a new sense of responsibility or lessened the need for football managers to act upon the sound principle that they are dealing with people playing a boy's game.

Now the message may be trickling out to the public subliminally that looks and lifestyles can be deceiving, that an era made different and more difficult by parasitic activity has bred bloated, plastic heroes. No longer, it seems, is there a Clough or, in his equally blunt way, a Jock Stein, or, in his avuncular but firm way, a Matt Busby, or in his caustic way, a Bill Shankly to deal with them.

Informed that Jimmy Johnstone (now cruelly beset by a wasting disease) was spending too much time in a Glasgow pub, Stein put a spy in place and waited for news of the winger's next visit. Johnstone had a drink in his hand when the barman handed him the telephone. "Hello," Johnstone said, cheerfully. "Aye, hello," growled Stein. Instantly recognising his manager's voice, Johnstone headed for the door, muttering, "The big man has got spies everywhere."

Stein earned his player's respect, even their affection, for his religion was theirs: winning. But fear was central to Stein's success with the most startlingly effective team in Celtic's history. Trying it on, the Scottish international full-back Tommy Gemmell asked for a move. Calling his chairman on a direct line, Stein said, "Player Gemmell requests a transfer. Recommended."

There are many stories like that, all from an era when the best managers, their task admittedly made easier by the old uncertainties of professional football, never allowed liberties to be taken. Maurice Setters, who turned out at right-half when Manchester United defeated Leicester City in the 1963 FA Cup final, recalls the nervousness he felt whenever called to Busby's office at Old Trafford. "Matt must have come across to the public as a friendly guy but believe me he could be hard. George Best was the only player who ever got away with anything and I think that was because Matt never worked out a way of dealing with him. Who could?"

Times have changed, maybe for the worse, maybe for the better. However it cannot be imagined that Leeds United's most successful manager, Don Revie, would have allowed his players the social freedom that led to serious charges being brought against Lee Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate. Revie, I'm sure, would not have countenanced the Christmas party which David O'Leary's players attended shortly before the verdicts on Bowyer and Woodgate were due to be delivered. Revie seldom let an earner slip by but would have avoided the trap into which O'Leary fell when putting his name to a book about the whole affair and allowing it to be touted for newspaper serialisation.

What would have been Alf Ramsey's response to suggestions, under consideration by the Football Association, that Bowyer and Woodgate should be made available to the England coach, Sven Goran Eriksson? In 1964, returning to their hotel just 20 minutes after the appointed hour, four senior England players discovered passports and air tickets on their pillows.

Called to Ramsey's room the following morning, they heard him say, "If there were players back home I could send for, you would all be on the next plane home." Curfew was never broken again.

To suggest, as someone did in a newspaper this week, that there was a time when most professional footballers could be relied on for monastic dedication is naive. When becoming, in 1961, the first modern Double winners, Tottenham Hotspur could probably have out-drunk any team in the League. Ron Greenwood's theory that footballers would healthily respond to being treated as adults fell apart when five players, including Bobby Moore and Jimmy Greaves, were fined for visiting a nightclub in Blackpool on the eve of an FA Cup tie.

Strikes me even more so these days that footballers respond best to a reputation for unrelenting firmness. As O'Leary has discovered to his cost, give them an inch and you'll come to regret it.